Muhammad found guilty

Army veteran, 42, shows no emotion at verdicts in Virginia sniper trial

Victim's kin: `Justice was done'

After reaching decision in 6 1/2 hours, jurors move to the sentencing phase

November 18, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - As a dozen relatives of his victims held hands and wept behind him, John Allen Muhammad was found guilty of capital murder yesterday for using a teen-age boy and a beat-up Chevrolet to spread terror and take 10 lives in the Washington-area sniper rampage last fall.

The jurors who convicted the 42-year-old Army veteran after 6 1/2 hours of deliberations moved almost immediately into the sentencing phase of the case, in which they will decide whether Muhammad will spend the rest of his life in prison or die by lethal injection.

Muhammad stood expressionless at the defense table, clasping his hands in front of him and staring straight ahead, as the clerk of the court read the guilty verdicts shortly before noon. Two jurors held hands and two cried. All of the jurors looked at the clerk - not Muhammad - as the verdict was read.

Family members of the victims wrapped their arms around one another as they heard the pronouncement of guilt, and several later hugged the lead prosecutor, Paul B. Ebert.

The jury of seven women and five men found Muhammad guilty on all four counts against him - two of capital murder, one of conspiracy to commit murder and one of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

"Justice was done," said Bob Meyers, a brother of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers, 53, who was killed Oct. 9, 2002, at a gas station near Manassas, Va. "Certainly, this is a huge step in the pursuit of closure, but I would really doubt that full closure ever comes because there's always an open wound that remains."

One of the capital murder convictions, under Virginia's multiple killings law, is for killing more than one person in a three-year period. The other, under the state's new anti-terrorism law, is for killing someone while committing an act of terror designed to intimidate the public and influence the government.

`A life to be weighed'

As the sentencing phase got under way, defense attorneys quickly changed their strategy from trying to show that Muhammad was not guilty of the charges to trying to show that his life has value and is worth preserving.

In his opening statement for sentencing yesterday, lawyer Jonathan Shapiro said he accepted the verdict even as he urged compassion.

"There's a life to be weighed, there's a life on the line," Shapiro told jurors. "You will make your own decision - to kill him or to spare him - and I know this is a very, very painful place to be right now. Your decision will put Mr. Muhammad in a box of one sort or another; one is made of concrete and one is made of pinewood."

He added, "It is not necessary to extinguish one more life."

Prosecutor Richard A. Conway said that over the next few days, witnesses will testify to other violence connected to Muhammad, to anti-Semitic statements he made, and to his troubled relationship with his former wife, Mildred Muhammad. Conway asked jurors to return a sentence of death.

"We reserve the ultimate punishment - the death penalty - for the worst of the worst. And, folks, he still sits right in front of you without a shred of remorse," Conway said. "The evidence is going to show you [such] a callous disregard for human life that rehabilitation doesn't even enter the picture. Punishment does."

Prosecutors also pointed to Muhammad's attempt to escape from the Prince William County Detention Center in March - a move that landed him in solitary confinement. That, along with other behavioral problems, shows that Muhammad is a threat to other inmates and prison guards, prosecutors said.

Muhammad's alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, also faces the death penalty if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers are expected to present an insanity defense that argues that Muhammad's control over him was so profound that Malvo cannot be held responsible.

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys in the Malvo case said they were surprised by the Muhammad verdict. Craig S. Cooley, one of Malvo's lead attorneys, said the verdict reflected the jury's belief that "Muhammad was the principal actor" in the shootings.

In Muhammad's trial, which has stretched over five weeks, prosecutors portrayed the elder man as the captain of a ruthless killing team that terrorized the Washington area and parts of Central Virginia for three weeks in October 2002. Ten people were killed and three wounded. All of the survivors, including a 13-year-old boy shot outside his Bowie middle school, testified during the trial.

"This case called out for the death penalty, perhaps more than any I've ever seen," said Douglas M. Duncan, the county executive in Montgomery, the Maryland jurisdiction where six of the 10 killings occurred. "Millions of people thought, `The next time I put gas in my car, the next time I got to the grocery store, I could die.' That's a horrible thing to inflict upon a community, and it deserves the most severe punishment."

The Virginia laws

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